Ben Carson’s rousing speech at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast has garnered a lot of widespread attention. Depending on your point of view, this is either a heroic address that is proof that this man needs to be our next president, or it’s an insulting attempt to humiliate Barack Obama. You’ll never guess which side I’m on.
First, the speech for those of you who have not seen it:
Things get really interesting at around the 17 minute mark as he directly confronts Obamacare and economics more generally.
Actually, upon initial viewing, I did wonder if this was the appropriate venue for Dr. Carson’s remarks. After all, shouldn’t the National Prayer Breakfast be a time where we put aside partisan debate and concentrate on what draws us together? This is what Cal Thomas – no fan of President Obama – thinks:
His remarks were inappropriate for the occasion. It would have been just as inappropriate had he praised the president’s policies. The president had a right to expect a different message about another Kingdom. I’m wondering if the president felt drawn closer to God, or bludgeoned by the Republican Party and the applauding conservatives in the audience (there were many liberals there, too, as well as people from what organizers said were more than 100 nations and all 50 states).
If Carson wanted to voice his opinion about the president’s policies, he could have done so backstage. Even better, he might have asked for a private meeting with the man. As a fellow African American who faced personal challenges and overcame them, the president might have welcomed Dr. Carson to the White House. Instead, Carson ambushed him.
Carson should publicly apologize and stop going on TV doing “victory laps” and proclaiming that reaction to his speech was overwhelmingly positive. That’s not the point. While many might agree with his positions (and many others don’t as shown by the November election results), voicing them at the National Prayer Breakfast in front of the president was the wrong venue.
Leftists were much more vehement in their criticisms of Dr. Carson. Suddenly the very same people who think the entire concept of a National Prayer Breakfast is an affront to the sanctity of the separation of Church and State were howling at Dr. Carson’s impropriety on such a solemn occasion.
There are several reasons why this criticism is unwarranted, and why Dr. Carson should proceed with his “victory laps.”
First and foremost, we have turned these occasions into sanguine, boilerplate affairs. What exactly is the purpose of this event? To mouth pious cliches about religion while not deigning to offend anyone’s delicate sensibilities? Dr. Carson did not insult the president, but rather he touched upon very serious issues and offered opinions based on his experience in the field. One would think such honesty and forthrightness would be welcome, but there are certain people among us who think the 11th Commandment is “Thou shall not offend anyone’s delicate sensibilities.” In a world where passive-aggressive disobedience is de rigueur, (see Fr. James Martin’s twitter feed to get a sense of what I’m talking about), it’s refreshing to see someone state their case with no apology.
Okay then, you might say, it’s still not the appropriate venue. After all, this an event centered around religious dialogue. Dr. Carson’s subject matter had nothing to do with prayer or religion.
Au contraire. To begin with, many of the people criticizing Dr. Carson would have similarly bellyached had he concentrated solely on “social” issues such as abortion. More importantly, it’s a false dichotomy to suggest that economic issues must be kept separate from the social ones. I have rebuked a certain strain of thinking on the right that suggests we need to get away from social issues and instead focus solely on economics. As I’ve said countless times, we cannot divorce social conservatism from economic conservatism. Well, the reverse is true. Those who favor certain socially conservative policies or attitudes – opposition to abortion, a desire to strengthen families, etc. – make a grave mistake when they turn around and embrace leftist economic policies. Just as social libertinism fosters cultural attitudes that lead to left-wing economic policies, statist (or corporatist, or whatever adjective you want to throw out) economic policies foster a cultural milieu that is an affront to what social conservatives desire. In other words, it’s a two-way street. If you want stronger families, don’t encourage economic policies that help chip away at the family. Sexual “liberty” breeds the conditions for single parenthood and the need for a welfare state. But a welfare state encourages attitudes that lead to sexual libertinism.
Finally, if we’re honest about all this pablum of “promoting dialogue,” then what’s wrong when someone gets up in a public forum and expresses disagreement with a very public person sitting in the audience? Again, Dr. Carson was in no way disrespectful, and his words could have been addressed to politicians in both parties. Is President Obama so sensitive that he can’t handle someone expressing reservations about some of his policies? Well, I think we all know the answer to that question.
Of course we don’t want these events turning into completely partisan affairs. But perhaps the question we need to ask is why is what Dr. Carson said considered to be partisan? Is Dr. Carson emblematic of societal polarization, or is the person sitting to his left the real sign of how disagreeable our politics have become that we can’t even address substantive issues in a meaningful way without it being considered divisive?
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